Downtown Knoxville businesses recover as delta COVID-19 variant raises concerns

Local News

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WATE) — Hotel occupancy in Knoxville is up almost 44% compared to the same time period last year. That’s according to the most recent quarterly numbers from Visit Knoxville. Tourism experts also said it’s back to pre-pandemic levels. All those visitors mean big business for our local shops.

Natalea Cummings is the general manager for The Mast General Store on Gay Street. She thought back to what things were like at the beginning of the pandemic.

“I definitely was like ‘No this can’t be happening’ because I think everybody was just so uncertain,” Cummings said.

The Mast General Store closed down from mid-March to mid-May in 2020. During that time, Cummings said she focused on the store’s online sales. She also said it was that time when they decided to add some “essential items” to their shelves.

“We have toilet paper, paper towels, diapers, things like canned soup, sugar, flour,” said Cummings. “We’ve always had food-type products, but these are more of a grocery-type item.”

Cummings explained this would allow them to stay open and in business if there was ever another shutdown.

“We now have products that would deem us essential and so hopefully, I hope it would never come to what it came to before, but we sell those products to help out guests that need that.”

She said so far this summer, they’ve been busier than years past.

“A lot of tourists have always come into our store, now it’s just a day after day after day,” she said.

While people are in her store today, she knows how quickly that can change. They’ll be keeping sanitizer at the door and an eye on delta.

“We just definitely gauge what’s going on outside of Mast and then we just want to be safe inside.”

Down the road, at The Bistro it’s a similar cautiously hopeful attitude.

“You deal with adversity every day, so you get used to bumps in the road,” said Martha Boggs who owns two restaurants along Gay Street: The Bistro & Dazzo’s Pizzeria.

She explained her businesses are on two opposite ends of the success scale.

“At The Bistro, a lot of our business depends on Bijou shows, so that is about half of our business,” Boggs began. “Also, the downtown business lunch is a big part of our business, both of those were gone.”

Boggs says The Bistro’s business is at just 30% of where it used to be. Her pizzeria stayed open through the pandemic and she says is back to pre-pandemic levels.

As far as the delta variant and fear of a second shutdown, Boggs said she’d be OK.

“We’ve made it most the way through a global pandemic, a lot of people have died, I’m really lucky to be here,” she said.

Visit Knoxville representative Kim Bumpas said the numbers in the most recent quarterly report are promising.

“You really have to look at where we are compared to the same time period in 2019,” Bumpas said. “While we’re not beating it by much, we are still beating it, anywhere from 3-10% on any given day.”

Bumpas also said right now there is too much unknown about the delta variant to determine what it could do to the region’s economy. “From what I’m hearing nationwide in the tourism sector, if it holds and if it truly continues to travel just amongst the unvaccinated and the vaccinated are a very small portion of who gets it, I still think people that are vaccinated will still want to travel.”

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